Third generation farmer Dwayne McDaniel had grown everything from cotton to cabbage in the Rio Grande Valley, alternating crops to market demands.

Then eight years ago he tried something new — a five-acre plot of cilantro. As the demand for the aromatic herb grew, so did acreage. In late fall, 2003, he had 150 acres in Hidalgo, Texas, and expected to have 100 more in the ground before the season ended.

“It's easy to grow and it's in great demand, so it makes us a profit,” says McDaniel. Besides that, compared to other crops, it takes less water and has a six to seven month growing season. And it looks as if there will be more consumers buying it in the future with the burgeoning popularity of salsa and other Mexican food.

McDaniel has been planting 16 to 17 acres of cilantro every week since first of October and will continue to do so through March. He incorporates herbicides into the top four to five inches of soil in front of the planter.

“It's not precision planting, there's no spacing,” says McDaniel.

He uses no insecticides since insects aren't attracted to cilantro, another advantage of growing the herb.

It's a quick growing crop. In two weeks the plant comes up and in only five to seven weeks from planting is ready to harvest, usually for two to three cuttings. On McDaniel's land in late November, 40 field hands had been cutting cilantro every morning, picking off the brown leaves and wrapping twist ties around the bunches. They tossed the cilantro into containers and onto trucks heading for Frontera Produce. If the cilantro will be shipped to far-away destinations, roots are left on to keep it fresh longer.

Cilantro can tolerate cool weather, but doesn't like heat. “Our first planting in October was a loser; the ground was too hot and it never came up,” says McDaniel. After that, South Texas was inundated with rain, leaving the cilantro prone to a disease that turned the leaves yellow. “We had to cut it down, but we still might get another healthy cutting out of it.”

McDaniel keeps up with market tendencies. Some years ago he was a cotton farmer, but when the market bottomed out, he gave it up. “But now that it looks like cotton is on the upswing, I just might go back to it.” At one time he had considerable acreage in greens. “But too many farmers started growing them, so I got out.”

Besides the 250 acres of cilantro, he leases 350 acres in Hidalgo for late cabbage and melons. All of his land is irrigated.

“I don't know yet whether we'll be planting cantaloupe or watermelon — whatever the shed has orders for.

“You have to have a home for your produce,” he says, stressing the importance of working with a packing shed that has contracts to sell to the big chains.

There are no longer any small grocery stores to sell to, but about eight big buyers, including HEB, Wal-Mart and Kroger, all of which go through packing sheds to buy produce. The packing shed management tells the farmer what they have orders for as well as the schedule.

“Since it is the shed that harvests the produce and ships it, you have to find a fair one or you don't make any profit,” says McDaniel. He gives Frontera Produce a lot of credit for treating him and other producers honestly and fairly. “They're letting us make a buck, too.”

Photo #2: CILANTRO is a fast growing crop, 5 to 7 weeks from planting to harvest. Here it is being loaded onto a truck heading for the packing shed.